Napster's UK launch almost certainly appears to have the fledgling music download market's existing British and European players worried.
How else can we explain the raft of press releases issued this morning offering comment on the event?
As we reported earlier, Europe's chief digital music distributor, OD2, today launched a 'buy 40 for the price of 20' offer. OD2 retail partner Tiscali was quick to pass the bundle on to its customers.
Berating Napster's "dodgy history", Tiscali put a brave face on today's events by announcing "there is room in the market for everyone and competition is good".
The ISP went on to highlight its long history in the music download business - which goes back all of 18 months.
Contrary to Tiscali's claim, the UK music download market is not "established". It remains the case that encumbent players have done little to evangelise the legal music download market. Tiscali has focused on offering the service to its own customers - Napster, by contrast, comes not only with "a strong brand" but a willingness to promote the service to as wide an audience as possible. Hence the deal with Dixons, for example.
Apple will almost certainly take an equally high-profile approach to its marketing - as it already has with the iPod - when its iTunes Music Store arrives over here in due course.
And we can't imagine Richard Branson failing to promote Virgin Digital with anything less than his usual enthusiasm.
By contrast, Tiscali's fellow OD2 customer, HMV, operates a high street chain, but enter even its most prestigious stores and there's little or no sign that the company also sells songs via the Internet. It had better start soon, we'd say.
Ditto the likes of Wippit, which today touted its price advantage: singles from 29p. Much of its catalogue costs more than that. As for its £50 a year/£4.99 a month unlimited-download subscription service, most of the major-label content it now offers is not included in that package.
"We welcome Napster to the UK market, coz it just makes Wippit look even better," the company chirps. Sorry, folks, but the reverse is true. Napster may be more expensive, but if you can't buy a download elsewhere, punters will have to buy there if they want to stay legal. And with a 500,000-song catalogue, right now punters are more likely to find the songs they want at Napster than any of its rivals.
That will change, of course, but it's from this point on that the battle for consumer mindshare really begins. There's room for many players. How many remains to be seen. For the foreseeable future, online music will sell to music fans rather than casual listeners. On the UK high street than means the likes of HMV, Virgin and the smaller independent chains and single stores. The latter survive by the benefit of location - on the Internet there are no geographical boundaries or limitations.
We expect a few big names to dominate, with smaller players targeting specific consumer demographics or musical genres. Napster's brand is strong, and while some P2P buffs may hate it for its commercial shift, plenty more punters will turn to the service as one of the few they have actually heard of. ®
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